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How University Presidents Can Make Equity and Student Success Their Top Priority

By David Kirp

David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and contributing writer to the New York Times, is the author of The College Dropout Scandal.

We have a massive college dropout problem. The public is scandalized, and rightly so.

What is the public university community doing about it?

I spent a year visiting APLU member universities that are moving the needle on graduation rates and eliminating the opportunity gap between “new gen” students—students from poor families, underrepresented minorities, immigrants, first generation college-goers—and the overall student body. These are the success stories I write about in The College Dropout Scandal, which shines a light on seven stellar schools—CUNY, Rutgers-Newark, University of Central Florida, Georgia State, University of Texas, Long Beach State and Wayne State. Many more public universities are working to build on this progress.

The seven pathbreaking institutions I profile in my book do not use the same playbook, for there’s no cookie-cutter solution. But four lessons from their experience stand out:

Lesson #1: The president must lead the charge. In each instance, he or she decided that boosting the graduation rate, making sure that students earned a solid degree, was the top priority.
Doubtlessly, you can wax eloquently on this subject. But moving the dial on these challenges means walking the walk too.

This isn’t me talking—I am paraphrasing every top administrator I met. Tim Renick at Georgia State sums it up: “Campuses invite me because they see the changes made at Georgia State and want similar successes. But when I get to campus and explain how we centralized advising, to make it better, I hear they could never do that because the dean of X wouldn’t support it and the dean of X is supported by the trustees. When I talk about junking lectures in math and making the courses more interactive, I hear that the faculty senate would never go against the chair of math to enact such changes. End of story.”

It’s your call. Faced with myriad competing priorities and just as many interest groups, are you willing to declare that your university’s most important mission is to graduate the students that come through your doors? Are you willing to push back against senior faculty, deans, boards of trustees and state lawmakers—every constituency that measures improvement by the school’s U.S. News ranking? Are you willing to fulfill the promise of higher education, that it can serve as an engine of social and economic mobility?

Lesson #2: If that’s your ambition, you need to build an administrative structure that can turn goals into action. This requires giving responsibility to a “student success czar,” a senior administrator whose mission in life is to get students across the finish line.

Lesson #3: Take a hard look at every potential roadblock to student success—everything that stands between your undergraduates and a good degree—and figure out how to remove them. Start before the semester begins, using text nudges to reduce the “summer melt” that is costing you freshmen, and end at the last semester of senior year, with small cash grants for students who drop out because they can’t pay their last semester bills. Remedial classes that choke enthusiasm, arcane math requirements, 19th century-vintage lecture pedagogy, uncertain pathways to a major—every aspect of an undergraduate’s life must be on the table.

You’ll unearth lots of roadblocks. The good news is that you’ll find proven strategies that don’t cost the mint.

Item #4: Your leadership team needs to get all hands on deck, developing a campus culture where everyone, from the president to the custodian, feels a sense of responsibility for students’ success and students understand that they are valued members of a caring community. Whether you have 5000 or 75,000 students, you can make it happen—talk to Arizona State president Michael Crow.

One surefire strategy is to hire more dedicated advisers. Undergraduates, roller-coastering through the most tumultuous time in their life, need someone they can turn to, both when they need academic guidance and when they need wise emotional support. That’s the centerpiece of a CUNY program whose participants are graduating at a rate double the college-wide population. Adviser, mentor, champion—many of us have been lucky enough to have such a person in their lives, and undergrads, especially the new-gen students, need this support.

The rap on college presidents is that you don’t have a lot of courage. Josh Wyner, who runs the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, told me that “there’s no reason to expect presidents to be change agents, especially if that change is risky and not necessary to preserve the ‘quality’ of their institutions measured by enrollment, buildings and prestige.” But I know from my travels that some of you are taking those risks on behalf of your students. That includes through APLU’s Powered by Publics initiative, which is engaging 130 public institutions as they aim to tackle equity and student success issues head-on.

I’ve learned a lot more while researching the book—give it a read, and email me if you’d like to take this conversation off line. Seize the day.

  • Degree Completion & Student Success

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